Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Hazlitt's Common Sense

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Hazlitt's Common Sense

Article excerpt

This essay sets out the centrality of the idea of common sense to Hazlitt's philosophical thought and writing practice. The unpacking of Hazlitt's epistemology of common sense shows up its basis in imagination; on that basis, Hazlitt's model of common sense might insightfully be compared to that of the eighteenth-century philosopher of common sense, Thomas Reid. This comparison can be extended, in turn, to language: where Reid proposes a common language for philosophy, Hazlitt's commitment to common sense is manifest in a more radical break from philosophical exposition itself. In the familiar style of his essays, common sense is at once the aesthetic and the moral principle. The final section of the paper briefly treats the implications of Hazlitt's (commonsensical) poetics of familiarity for current discussions of romanticism and gender.


In his Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805), Hazlitt makes the argument that the will, even in its most ordinary and habitual impulses, is imaginatively driven. Willing is the mind's perpetual leaping toward the future; the object of volition, necessarily unrealized at the moment of willing, is therefore necessarily imaginary. By making the imagination ordinary, and ordinary action imaginative, Hazlitt sets out the philosophical foundation of a lifelong practice which, constantly exposing the imaginative in the everyday, is especially embodied in a brilliant and characteristic kind of essay-writing: "familiar style." The idea of "common sense" belongs with that philosophy and that practice.

I. Imagining common sense

Hazlitt offers a general account of common sense in his essays "On Genius and Common Sense" in Table-Talk, where he indicates its epistemological basis. "Common sense is the just result of the sum-total of such unconscious impressions in the ordinary occurrences of life, as they are treasured up in the memory, and called out by the occasion" (viii.32).t Characteristically, Hazlitt's idealism- his commitment to a mind- rather than object-centered view of human knowledge--is expressed here, as elsewhere, in empiricist terms. Common sense, as he describes it, is founded on the accumulation of impressions; its operation is by association. But association, to Hazlitt, is not the mechanistic, empirical process theorized by the influential eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hartley (1705-1757), whom he categorically rejects. On the contrary, association is innately-generated and imaginative. It is the effect, not the cause, of the imagination's working; it consists in the perception of analogy and arises from the tendency to whole-making, the tendency that elicits a relation between disparate things, that is the imagination's characteristic tendency. (2)

In the first of the essays "On Genius and Common Sense," it is just such a process, of imaginative association, that constitutes common sense: "It is got at solely by feeling, that is, on the principle of the association of ideas, and by transferring what has been found to hold good in one case (with the necessary modifications) to others" (viii.38). The mind, receiving an impression, responds to it imaginatively by making an analogy, its activity here captured in the parentheses: "with the necessary modifications." The mind's activity is that modification, over and above simple receptivity. To Hazlitt, its receptivity to feeling is directly the index of the mind's imaginative ability: the more powerful the imagination, the stronger the feeling. Crucially, "feeling" here, refers not to sense experience, but to what Hazlitt otherwise calls "sympathy." As he explains it with reference to common sense, we feel

   by the instinct of analogy, by the principle of
   association, which is subtle and sure in proportion as it is
   variable and indefinite. A circumstance, apparently of no
   value, shall alter the whole interpretation to be put upon
   an expression or action; and it shall alter it thus
   powerfully because in proportion to its very
   insignificance it shews a strong general principle at work
   that extends in its ramifications to the smallest things. … 
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